The Fisher House Foundation has given out nearly 3,000 free airline tickets to war-wounded service members and their families under its current partnership with the Operation Hero Miles program, according to The American Forces Press Service.
Through the goodwill and generosity of thousands of people with unused frequent flyer miles and U.S. airlines, some 1,000 tickets have been given away during 2005 alone, and the number is constantly growing.
Jim Weiskopf, Fisher House vice president for communications, said Fisher House has given away more than 100 million donated frequent flyer miles to bring families and loved ones to the bedsides of wounded combatants.
“Even though these are free tickets, we spend money running this program, including hiring a staff member to manage the program,” Weiskopf told AFPS correspondent Rudi Williams. “We pay the Sept. 11 airport security fee and some other fees, such as the fee to change a ticket. We’re working with medical problems and people can’t always predict when they are going to have to travel.”
Created in 2004, Operation Hero Miles was started by U.S. airlines with the help of Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger to provide free round-trip tickets donated by the American public to the almost 500 Soldiers arriving to the United States each day from Iraq on rest and recuperation leave. Ruppersberger received a Distinguished Achievement Award at the 2004 Freddies for his efforts.
People eligible for free roundtrip airline tickets are wounded servicemen and women from Iraq and Afghanistan with approved convalescence leave and family or close friends visiting service members receiving medical treatment.
Weiskopf credits Mary Jo Myers, wife of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, with being a catalyst for creating the free frequent flyer miles tickets for wounded service members and their families.
“What Mrs. Myers envisioned is that the service members are young, so the parents are still working and trying to be by their loved one’s bedside while trying to keep their jobs, too,” Weiskopf said. “So a lot of them try to commute back and forth.”
Myers said the free air miles program can be a lifesaver, particularly when wives travel to be at a husband’s side, leaving children at home in the care of relatives.
“Children always have issues,” Myers told Williams, “whether they be preschoolers or teenagers, and they need mom too … at least this allows [parents at home to] travel back and forth to keep the injured military member’s spirits up.”
Requests for tickets originate from the service member and are forwarded to Fisher House by a hospital’s social work staff, family assistance center or service casualty office.
“All we want to know is the reason for the hospitalization, and we don’t make any distinction whether it was combat-related, training accident or sports injury if they’re hospitalized due to service in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Weiskopf noted.
Request forms are available on the foundation’s Web site. A case manager or other individual from the patient’s medical facility must validate the request form.